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No. 3: No to constitutional uncertainty

If the ballot language for Amendment No. 3 seems confounding, don't feel misled. So is the proposed amendment itself. Amendment 3 is a noble effort to stop the state Legislature from shoving the costs of government onto cities and counties that are unprepared to accept them. Unfortunately, the method is fraught with constitutional peril. To instill discipline in the Legislature, the Florida Constitution would be changed in such a way as to vest control potentially in a minority of lawmakers. The amendment also invites lawsuits on any range of public-policy laws _ from environmental cleanup to access for the handicapped to shelters for the homeless.

The intent behind the amendment is fine. Cities and counties are suffering from legislative irresponsibility, and they need help. Between 1981 and 1989, according to one legislative report, the state approved 288 laws that mandate changes in city and county government activity. Those mandates cost money, but the Legislature provided none. Instead, cities and counties were forced to dig into their often-empty pockets.

To solve that problem, the Florida League of Cities proposed an amendment that would provide a special legislative threshold for any law considered a "mandate" to cities and counties. In such cases, the Legislature would either have to give cities and counties money that has "been estimated at the time of enactment to be sufficient to fund such expenditure," or authorize the local governments to raise their own money through a "funding source not available for such county or municipality on Feb. 1, 1989." The kicker is that without the money or the authorization, the Legislature would need at least a two-thirds majority to pass the law. That could be an unhealthy leverage for a minority in either legislative chamber.

If the new laws don't meet the constitutional test, then cities and counties are authorized to ignore them. Think of it. The Legislature in 1985 adopted the landmark Growth Management Act, but people argue that it still has not been financed properly _ that it is, to borrow the language of city governments, an "unfunded mandated." Under Amendment 3, it is likely the act never would have passed or that cities and counties would be able to ignore it. That's a sad statement of legislative affairs, but a painfully true one. Many of Florida's most significant laws, especially environmental ones, were passed first and financed later.

The League of Cities is looking for responsible legislation, and voters this fall should be seeking responsible legislators. On the same ballot with the amendment are races for the state House and Senate. Vote for lawmakers who won't play shell games with tax money, leaving cities and counties empty-handed. On this amendment, however, we recommend you vote no. Amendment 3 may be well-intentioned, but it is dangerously off target.